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Home > Public Speaking / Presentations / Proposals
The Difference Between a Proposal and a Doorstop
by John Brien

Clients have read and heard hundreds of proposals, and although a few are outstanding, most aren’t. Many offend with ‘cut-and-paste’ boilerplate, miss important opportunities to provide value, suffer from poor logic and organization, and focus more on you than on me and my organization. Although some do a few things well, some don’t do much well at all.

Writing Winning Business Proposals

Ah, the dilemma of proposals. A distraction. A nuisance. A curse. But, in many cases, the only way to win business.

In smaller companies, subject matter experts have little choice but to shift their attention from profit making to proposal drafting. The rueful choice between doing the work or taking a gamble, albeit the kind of gamble that assures future income flows through the pipeline.

Larger companies will have a marketing component to lift the burden from the SMEs – conducting research, coordinating the process, providing writing support. There are several advantages to having a marketer on hand:

¨      It frees up the SMEs’ time, allowing them to focus more fully on their work (and only contribute to the proposal on an as-needed basis).

¨      Marketing involvement ensures that germane messages are incorporated.

¨      By having proposals pass through a single gatekeeper, there’s a greater guarantee of quality assurance and a consistent look-and-feel … elements essential for branding.

As someone in the film industry once told me: “It takes as much money to make a bad movie as it does to make a good one.” Certainly, many factors bear on whether you win the work: chemistry, experience, proposed solution, price. But, clearly, your candidacy isn’t advanced by an uninspired, and in some instances unreadable, proposal.

Whether proposals are prepared by SMEs or by a designated marketer/writer, the effort can be undercut by myriad misconceptions. Following are the four most notable, and deleterious, notions.

1. The bigger, the better.

It’s probably the niftiest scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark – Indiana Jones dashing through the streets of Cairo, clashing with Dr. Todt’s henchmen, coming face-to-face with a beefy, sword-wielding Arab… and shooting him. 

It’s a common belief (among proposal producers) that size, and showmanship, are critical. For many, size is synonymous with the amount of effort put into it. Conversely, a good communicator knows that quality, not quantity, matters. Your proposal can be a towering, overstated display like the scimitar-twirling thug, or it can be like Indy, dispatching the problem with a single bullet.

I’ve seen proposals the size (and weight) of marble slabs. Stop for a moment and imagine your audience. Gathered around a boardroom table. Asking, “Do we read this or simply request more copies to replace the lobby floor?”

As for those who feel that immense equals impressive (i.e., “Look at all the work we put into it”) – the intelligent reader, assuming the bulk of the text is boilerplate, will sigh “Look at all the work they didn’t put into it.” In fact, a portly proposal is a sure-fire way to estrange your audience. “Enormous” intimates:

¨      You’re unable to communicate in a straightforward, succinct manner.

¨      Tabs or no tabs, you expect the reader to slog through a swamp of extraneous information to get to what they want.

¨      You’re trying to hide something (“Well, we didn’t say that exactly. The fine print on page 118 indicates…”). 

In addition, for all your protestations about understanding the client, a giant proposal blares: “You’re busy? Nah. You can spare an evening or two to pore through our answer to War and Peace.”

Think about it: you want to differentiate yourself. In a world of gargantuan proposals, a smaller, more focused effort stands out.

2. Proposals have to be dull.

Officious. Verbose. Stilted. That’s how (submitting) companies like their proposals. (As noted above, receiving companies often have a different opinion.) Seasoned proposal readers can skim a proposal and tell how intent the company was in communicating to me. Hmmm… Constipated phrasing. Large blocks of copy. Plenty of stats… about their firm. Wait a minute, there are more mentions of their company than mine. What’s going on?

Most proposal writers are stuck in a rut, convinced that – in order to be taken seriously – they must (a) adopt a tone more solemn than a funeral director, and (b) knead content as flat as a Passover matzoh. This is the age-old myth of business writing, where everything needs to sound like a legal document. (How do you know you have a good idea? When it  elicits a prissy dismissal – “That’s not professional” – from a senior manager.)

Whenever you’re communicating, your job is to engage the audience. Proposals fall short when they:

¨      Are focused inward, not outward – Do your homework. If you boast a “global network of offices,” show how those offices overlap with the client’s facilities. If you have a new service, show how it helps solve the client’s predicament. Remember: it’s not about you – it’s about the client. Everything is about the client.

¨      State the obvious – I’ve seen too many proposals that begin with a variation on “XYZ Inc. is a utility company with 30,000 employees in four states.” Congratulations, Sherlock, you visited the company website. Few things cry lazy more than parading readily available factoids. Tell me something I don’t know… or could only have discovered after considerable legwork. 

¨      Are saturated with off-the-shelf information – The reader will only know whether you specially prepared content if it speaks directly to their organization. Anything that veers from that road is extraneous. Boilerplate has its place, but just know: readers can spot canned content a mile off; it won’t win you the business.

¨      Have no theme – You’re courting a hospital. What goes on the cover? “A Proposal to Provide Laundry Services to All Saints”? Or a picture of a maternity ward with the heading “Delivering every day”? One merely describes. The other is not only customized, but conveys a unique benefit. That’s a theme.

You can talk “professional sounding” all you want – it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that a disinterested reader stops reading. Call me a heretic, but “professional” and “creative” can coexist. Imagine you’re at a social gathering. Who would you rather spend the next hour with? A jabbering boor (a legend in his own mind)? Or an individual who’s  attentive, energetic, informed, incisive?

(Note: The only time proposals tend to get creative is in varying from the structure recommended by the RFP. I can’t state this strongly enough: obey the RFP guidelines. Failure to do so is a red flag, warning: you can’t follow directions; you want to prevent the organization from making an apples-to-apples comparison between submissions; you want them to hunt for information. The RFP process is distasteful enough for the decision-makers  – you don’t want to make it worse.)

3. Proposals should be packed with graphics.

It’s a natural inclination – your proposal is sagging with text, so you want to jazz it up with pictures. A piece of photo art here, a diagram there. Used appropriately, and in moderation, graphics are great. They can complement and illuminate your copy. Used excessively, they not only prove distracting but downright obnoxious.

Organizations may argue that the audience won’t read the text (“Okay, maybe they’ll scope the Executive Summary and the fees”); ergo, an emphasis on graphics. This psychology leads to a plethora of sidebars and a gallery of charts, tables, and models. (At some companies, marketers feel like galley slaves on a Roman trireme, rowing to a relentless beat: “More graphics! Faster! Faster!”). The cumulative effect can be disjointed – a mind-boggling banquet offering everything but last week’s salmon loaf. 

When considering what graphics to use, and where, keep the following in mind:

¨      Is the graphic serving a purpose? In proposals, as in most things, simplicity is key. Because a proposal is already rich (overflowing?) with text, you should keep a tight rein on the visual supplements. Beware of ornamentation, graphics meant to liven up a title page or add color to headers and footers. Graphics should have more of a reason for being than to adorn a boring page.  

¨      Are your graphics easy to understand? Some equate complexity with profundity. Readers, in turn, are treated to baroque, baffling diagrams. This is fine if they have an eye toward labyrinthine mysteries a la Angels and Demons. For those seeking a lucid explanation, busy diagrams resemble nothing so much as a wall layered with graffiti. Proposals aren’t the forum for showing how erudite or esoteric you are (columns like this are). Patterns and strategies are best laid out plainly. Spare the lavish touch.

¨      Do you have more than one model? I’ve seen proposals that include multiple models. Granted, different models may apply to different aspects of the project, but this can get confusing. Unless it’s clear how, and where, the models apply, clients may believe one contradicts another. Also, in the course of a presentation, do you really want the client inquiring, “Which model are you referring to?”

¨      Do your graphics have a consistent look-and-feel? Unless you stick to a single style, your proposal could end up like a room full of mismatched furniture, mixing Arts & Crafts with Colonial with Modern. In such a goulash, such an optical free-for-all, brand identity is lost. Readers are adrift in images, with no solid impression, perplexed. 

There’s another good reason for keeping graphics to a minimum: they can be voracious, consuming megabytes of space. What points do you earn if the final file is so huge, recipients are unable to open it (or give up during an interminable download)?  

4. Proposal writers are just glorified AAs.

As Rodney Dangerfield said, “I don’t get no respect.” And neither does the average proposal writer. Because the proposal process is so often denigrated, it goes without saying that proposal writers are denigrated along with it. Demands for efficiency lead to an assembly-line, color-by-numbers approach. (But at least the company’s well-paid talent is freed from “serving time.” )

Writers play a vital role in the proposal process. At best, they serve as stewards, gatekeepers, constantly wondering, “How does this tie together? How does this serve your central point?” Writers are essential in defining that central point.

At worst, they are overruled and under-utilized. Like anyone else, writers will sink to the company’s expectations. If a company is intent on getting the least from their writers, they should:

¨      Employ a team solely composed of recent grads – Nothing diminishes credibility like inexperience. Recent grads may lack the critical ability, and the confidence, to extract the right information from subject matter experts. While some SMEs may see value in directing a bunch of cowering novices (“They do what I say”), a system in which SMEs aren’t challenged is like any one-party system – a prescription for disaster. Being a gatekeeper is meaningless if there’s a penchant to let anything pass through.

¨      Have writers perform a limited set of responsibilities – What can you say about proposal centers or groups that are no more than proposal mills, the process reduced to a mechanical exercise whereby writers are graded by output and piecework (“Your quota is five proposals a week”), with quality a sad afterthought? Writers become clerks in an unvarying grind – ringing up purchases, stocking shelves… the path to burnout and turnover. The alternative? Presenting proposal writers with other challenges/opportunities – drafting collateral, composing press releases, writing articles.   

¨      View the boilerplate database as a silver bullet – Many companies feel that a bounteous database is the epitome of efficiency. Just cut-and-paste your responses and, voila, a completed proposal. The job becomes a breeze, with writers dispensing answers like Yu-Gi-Oh cards (“Dark Raven! Aqua Jolter! High Vizier!”). Uh-uh. An over-emphasis on rote answers not only makes the job deadly dull for the writer, but doesn’t demonstrate a deep understanding of the client’s issues and salient solutions.

¨      Let everyone have their say – Proposals have a tendency to snowball, drawing in more contributors, more viewpoints as the process rolls along. What you end up with is a cacophony of voices trying to out-shout one another, too many chefs in the kitchen. (Cue one of my favorite sayings: “A camel is a horse designed by committee.”) This doesn’t crystallize the message, it dilutes it; with every constituency awarded its own message, the proposal becomes formless and meandering. The writer’s job is to keep things in check, keep things simple and on-message. In effect, they’re serving as a dam, countering the impetus to make the proposal more complicated than it needs to be.

Maybe the most accurate image of the proposal writer is that of a charioteer trying to steer a team of horses… and win the race. The good writer doesn’t blindly accept the SME’s hastily scribbled missive; the good writer spurs them to deliver their best work. 

*****

You can only shake your head when you consider how much goes into a proposal… only to find a finished product clotted with vapid, convoluted, worthless material. From my time in the proposal warzone, I can assure you – it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Writers aren’t only struggling to get proposals out but are contending with a chorus of nay-sayers. “We’re too busy to help.” “Don’t we already have a proposal like this?” “Don’t worry, nobody reads proposals.”

Here’s a truth that seems to elude the more deluded proposal producers:  Proposals are marketing. In fact, they’re one of the strongest tools in your marketing arsenal. The proposal is a front-line sales piece. It’s likely to have greater impact than any brochure or e-mail… in part because the proposal was actually requested. If the reader only spends five minutes looking at it, that’s four more minutes than they’ve spent with your other communications.

Can lousy proposals win business? Sure. Especially among undiscerning buyers primarily focused on price. (Just because they put candidates through an elaborate selection process doesn’t mean the buyer can tell excellence from egg salad.) Otherwise, quality counts.

By quality, we mean more than an absence of typos or the accuracy of information. Quality is about how well you’re speaking to the client. It’s hard to believe a company when it says it’s committed to quality and that isn’t evident in the proposal.

Quality. It’s the difference between supplying rote answers and exhibiting real intelligence – the type of awe-inspiring aptitude and razor-sharp judgment the client desires. It’s the difference between a page-turner and a turn-off. It’s the difference between a proposal and a doorstop.


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